For his ninth birthday, Evan Padgett and friends had the run of Pin Strikes entertainment center. Two hours filled with the clatter of bowling pins, the jolting wallop of bumper-car bashing and the pew-pew-pew of laser-tag ambushes -- everything kids love in one convenient location.
"They offered various things for all the children and even had a lounge area for the adults. It was an all-inclusive birthday deal," said his mom, Autumn Burke.
Savvy families looking for the most bang for their buck are increasingly turning to these all-inclusive parties. They are one-stop party shops that take the stress of setup to cleanup off parents, freeing them up to enjoy their child's event.
Even in a weak economy, the cost of children's birthday parties hasn't declined -- a trend perhaps fueled by television shows such as TLC's "Outrageous Kid Parties" or photo layouts of lavish birthday parties thrown for celebrities' kids. (One such example: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes spent $100,000 on a butterfly-themed party when daughter Suri turned 2.)
A national survey of 2,200 readers by Parents magazine found that 49 percent said they expected to spend up to $200 on their child's party, with 19 percent admitting to more than that. A survey of 20 local party venues revealed $200 is the starting average for a birthday package.
Then there's the entertainment angle.
This is a generation of high-tech children who have grown up using computers since their preschool VTech toys. Traditional parties gathering around the kitchen table for cake and ice cream after outdoor play are pretty passé.
By the time a parent pays for food, favors, decorations and some form of entertainment -- like a petting zoo that comes to your house -- the price tag is already hovering around $200. So an all-inclusive deal seems just as economical.
"We want to be able to pay someone for the ability to basically show up and have a great time socializing with friends," said Mandy Savage, mother of 9-year-old Blaine. "The easier the vendor can make it on us, the more likely I am to recommend them to our friends."
Party packages are offered locally by favorites such as Pump It Up, but here are some new ideas along with old favorites updated by new features or prices.
• Location: 7531 Commons Blvd. near Hamilton Place.
• Party theme: Young Artists Party.
• They provide: Each child leaves the painting party with an original piece of art; all materials and instruction provided.
• Parents provide: Decorations, party favors, refreshments, one adult chaperone for every six children. Artwork ranges from 11- by 14-inch acrylic on canvas to decorating a personalized art apron or T-shirt for a favorite stuffed animal.
• Selling point: "Our teachers are all professional artists. We're teaching children about art and materials while they paint. We can also customize the party theme to the parent's wishes," said Mollie Youngblood.
• Cost: Minimum of six children, maximum of 12 per party for $25 per child. Additional $5 for each child. Parties are 90 minutes.
• To make a reservation: 531-7606. Must reserve minimum of 30 days in advance. Art parties at Hamilton Place location only.
THE ENGLISH ROSE
• Location: 1401 Market St.
• Party theme: Old-fashioned tea party in a charming tearoom for ages 4 and up.
• They provide: A traditional afternoon tea, which is a three-tier service that includes tea, scones with clotted cream, lemon curd, strawberry jam, assorted finger sandwiches, cheese and crackers, English biscuits and pastries.
For small additional fee, party can include etiquette lesson describing each serving and how to eat it properly.
• Parents provide: Adult supervision/chaperones, party favors. One adult per two to three children requested for young girls' parties. Adults must be seated with children as safety measure since tea is hot when served.
• Selling point: "There is nothing like it in Chattanooga," said owner Sharon Gilley. "It is the experience of having a unique English tea with china cups and lace tablecloth in an old building. It's like you are stepping back in time."
• Cost: Children's parties limited to 12-15 guests, including adults. Party fee is $18 per person, all-inclusive.
• To make a reservation: 265-5900. Five days advance notice encouraged, longer if booking a Saturday.
• Location: 1200 Wisdom St.
• Party theme: Paintball games or Airsoft battles; either are held on the same field. Must be a minimum of 8 years old for either party.
• They provide: Organization of games, all safety equipment and gear, picnic tables for serving food.
• Parents provide: Party food, favors, decorations.
• Selling point: "We are about the only option for males, especially between the 8-14 age range, that gives a unique experience that's not the typical kids' party. All guys love guns, cops and robbers, and we put that into a live video-game experience," said Jaren Powell, owner.
• Cost: Private packages start at $299 for up to eight people; $399 for up to 10, which includes more ammo. For each additional player past 10, it's $25.
• Only one option offered for Airsoft: $399 for up to 10 players, which includes equipment and 5,000 rounds of ammo.
• To make a reservation: 624-2121.
ROLLING VIDEO GAMES
• Location: 748 Overbridge Lane.
• Party theme: It's a tricked-out trailer with the latest in video games that rolls right up to your house.
• They provide: A climate-controlled game coach containing Xbox 360 stations, Wii stations and PS3 stations allowing 16 gamers to play together or separately, four 55-inch LCD widescreen TVs, vibration-rocking stadium seating for spectators, huge variety of game choices, on-site certified game coach who assists gamers.
For an additional fee, host can hire a glitter tattoo artist to join the party.
• Parents provide: Refreshments and party favors.
• Selling point: "We bring the party to you and clean up after. Mom doesn't have to worry about cleaning up the mess," said Caitlin Brydon, manager.
• Cost: Three packages available: $199 for one-hour party; $299 for two-hour party, 30 invitations and a $10 Bi-Lo gift card mom can use toward party food purchases; $225 for two-hour parties Mondays through Thursdays.
• To make a reservation: 475-6696 for either glitter tattoo artist or rolling video games.
What makes a great children's party?
"The theme," says Morgan Holland, owner of Soirees, which specializes in event planning.
"You have to have a good cohesive theme and make it a personalized theme so it fits the ages, and (party guests') likes at the time. For a 2-year-old, that might be Strawberry Shortcake; for a 40-year old, it might be golf. Carry the theme out from invitations to decor, favors and the design on the cake."
Following are 16 party possibilities; some new, some old favorites.
• Artsy U: 5084 South Terrace, 321-2317. One of the newest party sites in down, Artsy U offers paint parties for kids 6-16. Every child leaves with his/her own masterpiece.
• Chattanooga Zoo: 301 N. Holtzclaw Ave., 697-1322. Go a little wild at a party with children's treasure hunt and guided tour of the zoo. Costumed character appearances and carousel rides are available for additional fees.
• Chuck E. Cheese: 22 Northgate Park, 870-3215. Two hours in an arcade with pizza! What's not to like?
• Creative Discovery Museum: 321 Chestnut St., 648-6045. Don't be quiet in this museum! Packages in the children's museum start at $170 for members, $205 nonmembers, which includes food, setup and cleanup.
• Gymnastic Center of Chattanooga: 6855 Mountain View Road, 238-5258. Tumble, roll, run and play in this new Ooltewah gym.
• Hamilton Skate Place: 7414 Goodwin Road, 899-1788. "Roller Sk8'n Parties" in variety of packages.
• Lake Winnepesaukah: 1730 Lakeview Drive, Rossville, 706-866-5681. Pack a picnic for lunch in the Birthday Cake House, then turn kids loose for fun on 38 rides and attractions.
• Learning Express: 313 Manufacturers Road, 643-8697; and 2115 Gunbarrel Road, 591-9999. Try a Fancy Nancy party or Mad Scientist party, two of the dozen all-inclusive theme parties offered at the toy store.
• Lookouts baseball: AT&T Field, 201 Power Alley, 267-2208. Take 'em out to the ball game, mom, for box seating, Gigi's cupcakes and the birthday boy's name on the video board. It's a grand slam.
• Noah's Little Ark: Trenton, Ga., 580-1233. Bring the petting zoo to your backyard; a dozen animals can visit for $200 for the first hour.
• Pin Strikes: 6241 Perimeter Drive, 710-3530. Turn your kids loose in this glossy, state-of-the-art bowling alley with laser tag and arcade games.
• Scenic City Mini Golf: 21 E. Seventh St., 402-8174. No worry about rainouts at this new, indoor, 18-hole course. Four party prices available.
• Sir Goony's: 5918 Brainerd Road, 892-5922. With go-carts, miniature golf and batting cages there's a reason it's called The Fun Zone. Three party packages are available.
• Tennessee Aquarium: 1 Broad St., www.tnaqua.com. Mention it's a birthday package at the aquarium's ticketing center and receive a 10 percent discount for your group, a souvenir group photo and free admission for the birthday child.
• Tennessee Bouldering Authority: 3804 St. Elmo Ave., 822-6800. No need for mom to climb the walls -- let the kids do it at this indoor rock-climbing gym. Minimum of 10 climbers is needed for group rate of $10 per person.
• Tennessee Valley Railroad: 4119 Cromwell Road, 894-8028. What child hasn't gone through a fascination with trains after hearing Thomas the Tank Engine bedtime stories? Three party packages for ages 3-12 available on weekends.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...